Occasionally it happens that in one particular class, I feel that I am simply not getting through. This always leads to introspection. So I look for ways to improve my teaching. This time, I’m getting a message that doesn’t make sense to me, although I’ve nodded and promoted it for a number of years.
The issue is student engagement. There is tacit agreement that keeping students interested and engaged is a Good Thing. However, after much thought, I’m starting to think that this emphasis is detrimental to good teaching and learning. As a historian, I also fear it will damage my discipline as, well, a discipline by encouraging a lack of…discipline.
We often face classes of staring, bored-in-advance students waiting to be entertained. There’s an excellent post by Dave Graser on how to flip a zombie. He meant flipping a bored class (assigning static material for out of class, and using class for discussion) and connecting it to contemporary issues to engage students. The ideas are exciting, and are behind the whole movement of “flipping” classes.
We also have students who are completely unprepared for the rigors and habits of college-level study. Alford and Griffin on Faculty Focus: Teaching Underprepared Students, claim that the solution for such an unready, disengaged group is “relevance, relevance, relevance”. We must figure out where students are, and then bring them to the subject through connecting their experience to our material.
We are also told can engage them through fun activities, gaming, modern colloquialisms, or pop culture. Dynamic lecturing, new technologies, new approaches, should all be designed to encourage their engagement in our course.
The premise of all this is that teachers have the responsibility is to make things “relevant” and exciting, so that students will stay engaged and maintain focus. It is natural to want happy, active students. I want them too! But there are several problems. One is that the current prescription puts the burden of engagement on the instructor rather than the student, leading to dependency. Another is that trying to effectively engage students can lead to a “dumbing down” of ones discipline.
In short, the current emphasis on student engagement is misguided.
The Instructor’s Role in Engagement
The suggestion, way out there in not-much-research-land, is that engagement equates as student success in the class, presumably in the form of high grades and an advanced level of work.
The problem is that engagement doesn’t do that – engagement makes it interesting to do well if you are already capable of doing well. It cannot ensure doing well if you’re not able to succeed, for whatever reason. I know students who are totally engaged in History, and very enthusiastic, but will not accept instruction in either the discipline or how to express it. Their “teacher” is the History Channel, the things they’ve already read or heard about, and the workings of their own mind, independent of facts and habits of cogent analysis. They are engaged, but cannot construct a coherent historical argument nor back it up with sources.
By the same token, those who do not like the class, or are “disengaged”, may do very well. This is particularly true if they are self-directed and cognizant that they don’t like the class. They push harder to do good work because they want a high grade. Engagement is a side effect, one I encourage by allowing students to pursue their own topics.
I do want them to enjoy their work – that’s important to the quality of the class, providing the opportunity. But it is just, as I’ve indicated before in my post about “student success”, an opportunity. If I don’t provide an opportunity for engagement, by creating a class with both clear direction and some room for exploration, I am not doing my job.
But I cannot force engagement – no one can. And we cannot delude ourselves that we can even track it. I cannot tell whether a student who is looking at me while I lecture or doing the work enthusiastically in her group is learning history or thinking about lunch. Similarly, I can’t assume that the student staring at his desk is not listening and learning. Online, we are deceived by data such as the number and length of log-ins, which is faulty the moment a student leaves to get a sandwich with the lecture screen open, or logs in twelve times a week because they have a nervous disposition.
But these days it is not enough to just provide opportunity and access. If students do not engage, it is my fault, or the fault of the design of my class (my design). They drop because I have not engaged them enough.
I just don’t buy it – teaching and learning doesn’t work that way. I can give them the dance floor and the lessons, but they need to engage the dancing by stepping out there and giving it a whirl. Much of their willingness and ability to do so is beyond my control.
The problem of intellectual integrity
In the above articles, it is advised that we should engage students emotionally first. I know a history instructor who does this, and does it beautifully. He starts his lectures with horrific images or stories of human cruelty. Once students are upset about the injustice being portrayed, they want to know the background, so he gets into the facts in the lecture.
At first, I believed I was just not cut out to lecture that way. But after awhile I realized it isn’t my storytelling ability – I actually have pedagogical issues with the whole approach. An emotional approach is inherently anti-intellectual. It also leads to emphasizing primary and secondary sources that have an extremist viewpoint. There are moral lessons to be sure, but also a real danger of encouraging a “History Channel”, sensationalist approach to history. I have always had trouble with role-playing as a technique for teaching history for the same reason. Although I am enchanted by such projects as the Titanic re-enactments on Twitter (and now, Jack the Ripper), I cannot bring myself to use such a technique with my students. The gamification of education causes the student to focus on side issues instead of learning historical skills (despite the enthusiastic teachers who assign Civilization IV or promote “what if” alternative history).
We are told that we must make history relevant by continually connecting historical events and ideas to those in comtemporary life, and we strive with increasing difficulty to find current affairs with which students are familiar. But again, the approach is misguided. What makes history “relevant” is not related to immediate things, or things that are part of students’ daily lives. And when we emphasize those current connections (having students construct their family histories, or their own) we give the wrong impression of what the historical field is all about.
A great forgetting
Nicholas Carr (in The Atlantic) reports the extent to which our computer dependence causes us to forget how to do things. He uses flying a plane as an example – accidents these days are the result of human error due to lack of practice, rather than mechanical failure. After reading his article, I used an example in my class when students said that the compass was a significant medieval invention. Yes, it was, but it also led to dependence on the techonology – fewer and fewer people would be able to read the sky to know where they were. One of my students came up afterward and told me of a camping trip where they had forgotten their standard compass, and could not figure out how to use the fancy electronic compass on an expensive watch. Only one of them knew where the sun would be, to help find their way.
The final danger is that as we trivialize history to make it relevant, we will forget how to practice skills required for the discipline. Many people are already forgetting how to read a sustained argument, which is essential for understanding many significant historical documents. We are forgetting how to find things in books, how to gloss dense text, and how to take good notes. We are losing the ability to retain information, because we know we can easily look it up.
I used to assure students that they did not need to memorize historical facts, since we could look them up. Now I’m not so sure. To not memorize anything is to allow an important habit of mind to rust into uselessness. Should we really cater to short attention spans with 10 minute videos and breaks in the classroom action every 15 minutes? Perhaps it would be better to teach students how to analyze a document carefully, how to take notes on a document, how to focus on one thing for awhile.
As I noted recently on Twitter, our “customer” in public education is society, not the student. Right now, society in this country is on an anti-intellectual bender, defying rationality in its political system and reducing the financial support for higher education. To cater to students’ demand for entertainment and short “chunks” of information is to further the aims of those who would prefer an uneducated public (as I’ve noted about online “providers”). It is usually the goal of historians to encourage an understanding of the past in order to improve the future. And I’m not sure we can do that if we continue bowing to the gods of student engagement.